Brian's Journal - England, June 2011

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06/13/2011   London to Chiddingstone Causeway  
The drive out of the airport was tough. We rented a big car again, a Volvo station wagon, knowing that John and Mom would be joining us in a few days. Though not as big as last year's minivan it still seemed to consume almost the entire width of the little roads we found ourselves on once we left the freeway. Leaving the airport we immediately encountered a series of roundabouts and somehow ended up heading back towards the airport again. We pulled off into a housing development and asked some amused locals where we were and how to get somewhere else. Recognizing our inexperience they figured out an easy route and I think we managed to follow it. In any case, we ended up heading south on the M25, then sitting in a traffic jam on the A21, then out in the Kentish countryside.
I don't remember how we ended up at Chiddingstone Causeway. It isn't much of a village, just a bend in the road and a commuter station on the train to London, 40 miles away though about two hours from the airport as we drove it. We were headed for a castle, or perhaps a garden (Sissinghurst isn't far away) and we almost stopped in the ancient-looking village of Penshurst just outside the walled gardens of the Penshurst manor, but we couldn't find a parking place. When we passed the Little Brown Jug a few miles down a narrow lane the spacious parking lot appealed to us so we stopped. The menu looked good too. We picked a table outside on the lawn. Bathed in late afternoon sunshine and secluded from neighboring barley fields by a line of big shade trees, it was very pleasant. I ordered a brown ale which seemed more watery than the US microbrews I'm accustomed to; I think Susan had a gin and tonic. We ordered at the counter; I tried plaice, said to be like sole, because we were near Dover, and Susan had lamb. My plaice was exceptionally tasty, a delightful surprise.
Not knowing where we would end up, we'd made no arrangements for a place to stay. The bartender suggested we try the White Post Oast up the hill. It looked good - a collection of what appeared to be converted barns. The far end of the nearer building was a stout round tower with a steep conical roof - an oast, formerly used for kiln-drying hops. We'd seen several others in the area. An amiably round man came to the door and explained that his wife had been to London for the day so the rooms might not be made up, but somewhat reluctantly agreed to check. I told him we wouldn't be too demanding. He returned shortly and agreed to rent us a room for a few days. It turned out to be a quiet refuge with very English-feeling casual garden out back and even several busy bird feeders, a perfect place for us to recover from jet lag and a week of too little sleep preparing for the trip.
06/14/2011   Chiddingstone Causeway  bird list
I birded while Susan slept. I got out around sunrise after not enough sleep and watched the feeders for a half hour or so then walked up the road to the east. It wasn't great walking; in places the pavement extended right to the hedgerow leaving no room for pedestrians. When I could I slipped through the hedgerow into the big pasture on north side of the road. During World War II it was Penshurst Airfield, used by the RAF primarily as an emergency airfield. I saw a few sheep and fewer birds in the pasture. Crossing the road to the west I followed a dirt track along the border between a barley field and a woodlot. Beech trees along the boundary had an interesting growth habit - a gnarled spreading trunk branching left and right a couple of feet off the ground, from which rose a line of four to six inch trunks - apparently a hedgerow grown up into trees. Most of the woodlot consisted of trees of a similar size but here and there were stout old oaks, isolated trees out in an open pasture forty years ago. Birding and photography were both fairly good. I found a flock of Long-tailed Tits and chased a song in the treetops until I identified the source, a Chaffinch. I keep having to re-identify that bird.
Through midday I worked on the mybirdnotes site, adding a European species list so that I could use mybirdnotes to record my England bird lists. Had I done that ahead of time, I could have used the time to write these journal entries, instead of doing them now, nine months later. Later in the afternoon I went out for a run. I carried binoculars but didn't try to record sightings - there are still too many calls that I don't recognize. I ran generally SE, following the road then bearing SE on a smaller road, then heading into the woods when that road ended at a T intersection. Bearing right once in the woods, I found myself on a long grassy promenade lined by shade trees, perhaps part of the Penshurts Manor grounds. We ate at Little Brown Jug again, still good though not quite as good as yesterday evening.
06/15/2011   Chiddingstone Causeway  afternoon bird list
It was my turn to sleep today, in between birding outings. I just watched the White Post Oast feeders in the morning. After a long nap, I went out for a bird run in the afternoon, carrying binoculars and stopping to identify birds I didn't know. More birding than running. The light was low under a heavy overcast, which perhaps accounts for the Little Owl I saw out and about. I regretted not having my camera; the countryside down towards the River Eden, southwest a mile or so from the White Post Oast, is a scenic quilt of rolling pastures bounded by hedgerows and old oaks. I ran from Moorden Road west to the River Eden as far as Vexour bridge and identified 28 species of birds, including singing Yellowhammers, nesting Common Kestrels, both Great Spotted and Green Woodpeckers, a family of Common Whitethroats, three Gray Herons and numerous Great and Blue Tits.
Susan arranged for two guys living in one of the other buildings at the White Post to meet us for drinks at the Little Brown Jug before supper. We only had an hour or so with Ben and Charley before they had to go, perhaps to a football league practice or something. As I recall they were both divorced, friendly, attractive and pleasant guys but not too hopeful about their prospects. It was a bit of a mystery to us why they'd settled in Chiddingstone Causeway, where there didn't seem to be much of a social life.
Later in the evening Susan decided that the furniture in the courtyard between the several buildings at the White Post needed rearranging. She thought it belonged to the owners of the B&B but as it turned out, it belonged to an elderly woman in the house behind the B&B. She came out to investigate and was quite alarmed to find her furniture all out of place. If I remember right I think Charley showed up just in time to explain the situation to the woman and to a local constable who happened by.
I missed the whole situation; it happened while I was inside visiting with the Welshman who lives in a self-catered room downstairs. He's a project manager working on a sewage treatment plant in a nearby town; he drives down for the week then returns home to Wales on the weekends. I think we were both surprised to find we had similar work experiences despite our different jobs in different fields. He came from a working class family, started work as a laborer and had worked and studied his way up through the ranks into project management, now finding himself very well-paid compared to his childhood friends.
06/16/2011   Chiddingstone Causeway to Haling Island  morning bird list
More birding this morning, down to the River Eton valley again but with the camera this time. Dark conditions and even some rain hampered bird photography but I got a few photos of meadows and trees, and marshes along the river.
Back at the White Post I asked Edmund and Sarah if I could take a few photos of their house. It is remarkably old; the core of the house is a timber-framed barn dating back to the 14th century. Edmund is an architect, semi-retired I think. Sarah's a bit wild, and appreciated that quality in Susan as well. We were sorry to bid them good bye.
We drove southwest on smaller roads down towards Portsmouth and found a place to stay on Haling Island near the Langshore Natural Preserve. The first couple of places I tried were full, but The Old Vine had a room at a reasonable price. It was a comfortable homey place, quite different from the rustic elegance of the White Post Oast. Our room was spacious, quiet and comfortable, overlooking a secluded yard with flowers all around. The owners, a Greek man and his English wife, were attentive but not intrusive. They really seemed delighted to have us staying with them.
We ate dinner at the nearby Yew Tree Pub. The place was dark with low ceilings and late evening sunlight glancing in through the windows by the front door. It seemed popular, perhaps because it was a Friday night. Wanting vegetables, I tried the vegetable curry. It was awful, a few peas and bits of carrot drowning in a sickly-sweet sauce. Susan's lamb chops, on the other hand, were quite good and moreover came with three sides of vegetables - peas, potatoes and mustard greens. Moral of the story - if you want vegetables in an English pub, order the lamb chops and by all means, avoid the curry.
06/17/2011   Hayling Island to Bishop's Cleeve  West Hayling LNR bird list
Went out birding early this morning at the West Hayling local nature reserve. The local specialty is the Little Tern but I didn't see any. Perhaps the abundant Black-headed Gulls have chased them all away. Though conditions were again dark with a low overcast and chilly breeze, I managed to get photos of a fair number of the local bird species. It was nice to investigate a new habitat.
Back at the Old Vine, Les and Gaynor served us a bountiful and delicious English breakfast. When we told them we were meeting my folks in Southampton, they insisted on picking us a big bouquet of flowers - roses, lilies, loosestrife, daisies and greenery - from the garden out back. We left a little late, which would have been OK had we not gotten lost trying to find the berth for the QM2. Mom and John were among the first off the boat, as usual, but then had to wait a couple hours for us to show up.
Having recently read Sarum by Edward Rutherfurd, a fictionalized but engaging account of the history of Salisbury from the initial stone age settlement up through the 20th century, I wanted to stop and see Salisbury Cathedral and perhaps some of the other sights mentioned in the book. John isn't big on cathedrals but was willing to stop. The building was impressive, very tall both outside and in. The main hall of the cathedral was filled with elaborate floral displays, some sort of competition, so we wandered around admiring those for quite a while before exploring the church. The flowers and crowds detracted from the atmosphere in my opinion, but it was worth the stop nonetheless. We ate in a pub across the street, the Old Ale House, where the atmosphere was dark varnished wood and both the ale and the food were reasonably good. It was nice to sit down after a couple hours on our feet in the cathedral. On the way out of town we passed Old Sarum, which I would like to have seen but we were a bit short of time.
Our B&B in Cheltenham, Gambels Farm, was a real find, a very clean and modern-feeling stone farmhouse at the edge of town with wonderful walking trails just a block or two up the road. Our rooms were spacious and included private baths. Breakfasts were delicious and were served in a glass-enclosed conservatory overlooking pastures below Cleeve Hill. The price was very reasonable as well - they should probably charge more for what they offer. The owners were friendly and helpful when we needed them and left us alone the rest of the time. The local restaurants weren't too inspiring. We ate dinner at the Apple Farm part way up the hill. It felt a bit like a chain, the food good but not memorable.
06/18/2011   Bishop's Cleeve  
I went out for a short walk in the morning, followed a footpath across a hay field, through a bit of woods then uphill across another hayfield where I lost the trail. I descended along the edge of the wood to a lane and followed it back (no shoulders, as usual) to Gambel's Farm. Nice views out to Cheltenham and up towards Cleeve Hill but my shoes got damp from dew.
After breakfast in the conservatory we muddled around for an hour or so then Mom and John, Bridget and I set out for a hike up to Cleeve Hill. We followed footpaths across fields, over styles, through hedgerows and eventually back onto the road up from Gambel's Farm. As is typical of the Cotswold countryside, the tops of the hills are open rolling pastures; the woodlands are perched on the slopes just below the hilltops. A golf course is sprawled across the top of Cleeve Hill, its fairways barely distinguishable from the surrounding short-cropped sheep pastures. We wandered across the course to the escarpment overlooking Bishop's Cleeve and Cheltenham, then took refuge in a crevice in the low cliffs while a brief but intimidating rainshower blew over. The storm came upon us more quickly than we expected but dropped only a little rain before moving on. I waited on top for the sun to come out before hurrying down to catch up to the others. Out over Cheltenham another shower was headed our way but passed us by shortly before we reached our B&B.
For supper we drove a few miles over to the Gardner's Arms in Alderton, a small village with impressively thatch-roofed houses. The ale and food were both quite goo. Our waitress was new and a bit intimidated by the size of our party so the owner stopped by to help with the order. We chatted with her some and learned that she'd bought the pub after a career as a spy in the British intelligence service.
06/19/2011   Cheltenham Circular Challenge; Bishop's Cleeve to Chipping Campden  

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